Who will replace Ramos at Absa? Here are the front runners
One thing's for sure, the winner won't be an internal candidate, what with Absa's poor employment equity record
Standard Bank and Nedbank had better keep a close watch over their folds, what with Absa on the hunt for a new CEO. With no black executive within its own ranks yet ready to take over from outgoing chief executive Maria Ramos, Absa will be knocking on the doors of competitors that have carefully groomed strong internal pipelines of black talent.
That there is no natural successor to Ramos, who has chosen to retire at the end of February after 10 years at the helm, is demonstrated in the bank appointing non-executive director and former registrar of banks René van Wyk as interim CEO while it searches for its next leader.
Internally, only Arrie Rautenbach, who joined Absa in the late 1990s and is now CEO of retail and business banking (RBB), could head the organisation. But he is a politically unpalatable choice. In a sector under scrutiny for its slow pace of transformation, appointing a white male to lead the bank would be seen as a step backwards.
Rautenbach’s impressive deputy, Bongiwe Gangeni, while undoubtedly a future candidate, does not yet have the retail banking experience or exposure to the market to be viewed as a credible CEO.
Whoever takes over at this now-or-never moment in Absa’s history should ideally have a strong retail banking background. Still the bank’s largest division, the retail banking unit was a casualty of the Barclays years, losing customers and market share in key areas such as home loans. Turning the unit around is a major focus of Absa’s post-Barclays strategy.
This rules out Nomkhita Nqweni, CEO of wealth, investment management and insurance, who has been touted as a possible successor to Ramos in the past.
Ramos’s deputy, Peter Matlare, himself close to retirement age, is also out of the question.
The reportedly brilliant but unknown Yasmin Masithela, chief of group strategic services and previously head of compliance, probably understands what is required to implement the bank’s new strategy better than anyone else. But shareholders will want someone with more experience leading a bread-and-butter banking portfolio. For that, Absa will need to look outside its own walls.
My money is on Nedbank’s RBB chief, Ciko Thomas. With strong consumer industries experience, including at SA Breweries and Barloworld, Thomas was part of the Ingrid Johnson-led team credited with turning Nedbank’s RBB unit around. The solid performance has continued under Thomas.
Johnson caught the eye of Nedbank’s then parent, Old Mutual, who poached her to be finance director and eventually help implement the group’s managed separation.
Previously general manager of retail banking marketing at Absa, Thomas is not only familiar with the bank but may still feel a little sentimental about it. He is also likely to have relationships with senior managers in the organisation.
And with his own boss, Mike Brown, unlikely to retire soon (Brown turns a sprightly 53 in 2019), Thomas, 49, may well be open to the Absa role. After all, the chance to lead one of SA’s big four banks, particularly at a seminal moment in its history, doesn’t come around often.
Other possible candidates are Thomas’s counterpart at Standard Bank, Zweli Manyathi, or even his deputy, Funeka Montjane. All three are widely respected and experienced retail bankers.
Even Kenny Fihla, Standard Bank’s esteemed corporate and investment banking chief, is a possible candidate. But a lack of retail banking experience may count against him.
Then there is the equally well regarded Sandile Shabalala at TymeBank. Shabalala, previously head of Nedbank’s business bank, joined the start-up as CEO in 2017. The challenger bank, which suffered an early setback, is struggling to gain traction. A few months after it launched it had to contend with a sale to Patrice Motsepe’s African Rainbow Capital (ARC), following the exit of Australian parent, Commonwealth Bank of Australia (CBA).
While ARC may be a more natural shareholder than CBA, it doesn’t have the same balance sheet and so it is possible that Shabalala may be eyeing other opportunities.
Given Absa’s underperformance relative to peers, Ramos leaves a mixed legacy. But she has led the bank admirably through tumultuous change. Sadly, when she goes, women CEOs will be altogether absent from the top 40.
• Ziady writes from Cambridge in the UK.